nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 12, 2009
Melvillapalooza is Metropolitan Playhouse's fourth annual mini-festival devoted to the life and work of a celebrated American author (preceding Herman Melville as subjects have been Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and Mark Twain). There are six different programs being presented as part of Melvillapalooza. I saw one of them, "Voyage A," and so this review makes no claim toward comprehensiveness but is, hopefully, representative of the experience of this event.
"Voyage A" is a double-bill of new one-act plays. The first is Billy Budd, in an adaptation written and directed by Scott Barrow. This is a faithful dramatization of this novella, which was left unfinished by Melville when he died in 1891. It's narrated by Captain Vere of His Majesty's Navy, who recounts how under his command the young innocent seaman Billy Budd was impressed into service on his ship the Indomitable, and how Billy's apparent perfection made him popular with all men on board save one, the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart. The consequences of Claggart's enmity prove tragic.
What I liked about Barrow's take on the tale is that he doesn't impose much on it: though the story can read allegorically, Barrow lets it unfold as a historical yarn about the sea, filled with interesting and valuable contextual information that helps us understand why events transpire as they do, but lacking the heavy hand of judgment or symbolism.
Barrow has staged the piece with just six actors, four of whom are at least double cast; this sometimes leads to confusion as to who's who, though the economy of this choice does make some sense. The actors are all fine, happily—Andrew Davies, Joe Petrilla, and Arthur Aulisi, who play various supporting roles; John Little, who is excellent as the (possibly) conflicted Vere; Justin Gibbs, utterly convincing as the simple and innocent Billy; and Andrew Grusetskie, who is a standout as Claggart, lifting him from mere melodramatic villainy to create a fully-formed tormented and tormenting man.
Following a brief intermission, Dan Evans's The Archangel caps the evening. The idea of this play is quite delightful: Herman Melville, suffering from a huge case of writer's block, finds inspiration to put Moby Dick to paper from some unlikely sources—a runaway slave named Ishmael, and a young woman whose recent encounter with an archangel has led her to renounce her former profession of prostitution.
Unfortunately, the execution of the idea, as directed by Evans and performed by a cast of six, is generally unsatisfying. The pacing feels slow, and most of the actors deliver ponderous, overwrought characterizations. Only Laurence Waltham's sly take on Walt Whitman, Melville's new friend, seems really simpatico with Evans's clever concept.
Nevertheless, The Archangel's fanciful alternative history provides a neat counterpoint to the more traditional adaptation of Billy Budd with which it shares the program. All in all, a rewarding couple of hours of Melville.